Guatemala’s Masks and Drama.
Jim Pieper. Torrance, California: Pieper and Associates, 2006.
Distributed by University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque. 284 pp.
Reviewed by Walter E. Little
Guatemala’s Masks and Drama
by Jim Pieper is a coffee table book with substance. Lavishly
illustrated with 586 color photographs—predominantly of ritual dance
masks but also of the artisans who fabricate them and the dancers in
costume that wear them—this glossy book will most likely enthrall and
annoy scholars of indigenous art and performance. Essentially, the book
is a catalogue of Guatemalan masks—mainly from the 19th and 20th
centuries—that have been previously used in cultural performances and
are now in the possession of private collectors and small museums.
on 30 years of experience as a collector of Guatemalan masks and
witness to the dramas and dances in which these masks are used, Pieper
writes in a casual style for other collectors, rather than to an
academic audience. The opening chapters combine romanticisms of Mayas’
cultural ways with guidelines for mask collecting. For example, Pieper
writes: “How was the mask treated—lovingly or carelessly? Was it danced
or did it sit, preserved, on a shelf? The reader will begin to
understand how to intuit the mask’s essence and retain energy” (p. 12).
This kind of romanticism in combination with collecting advice has the
effects of creating a number of ambiguities for the reader. For
instance, Pieper laments the decline of woodcarving but discusses a
thriving tourism trade of masks that will never be danced. At the same
time, he provides detailed tips on how to identify an old mask that has
been used in performances from a new mask that has been modified and
not used. These perspectives are then placed within his enthusiasm that
all masks—new and old, used in performances or produced for the tourism
market—are worthy of the collector. These ambiguities mask what would
be truly offensive to scholars, a guide to identify antique masks and
the sources to find them. Instead, Pieper presents the material in
value-neutral ways. Maya woodcarvers and vendors are not trying to
cheat foreign mask buyers in making their new masks look old; they are
merely responding to the cultural aesthetics of their customers (p.
21). We are assured that carvers and sellers are not out to cheat
tourists and collectors, but these consumers can benefit from knowing
how a mask is constructed, knowing whether it was used in a
performance, and being able to determine its age.
aspiring collector, one may assume, will take this advice to search out
old masks, rather than the plentiful reproductions and colorful new
creations found at affordable prices in tourism-oriented markets. As
with other collectible Guatemalan handicrafts—textiles, in
particular—this kind of collecting does not encourage the continued
production of masks or inspire youths to become carvers. What is not
made clear is to what extent does mask making constitute a viable
income. Can mask makers sustain themselves and their families through
sales to local clients, tourists, and collectors and by renting masks
and dance costumes for festive and sacred performances? Pieper does not
go beyond a superficial celebration of all masks and an encouragement
of collectors and tourists to buy new masks.
scholars will also find Pieper’s lack of citations bothersome, but he
does not have to appease this audience. In addition, although Pieper
places himself as the butt of Maya jokes regarding his collecting
techniques, these same techniques may seem offensive to scholars. For
instance, he writes:
once negotiated with a dancer who responded to my request to buy his
mask in pantomime in the center of a large group of villagers. He would
dance over, fake taking off his mask, motion to see how much money I
was holding in my hand, then dance back to the center of the group.
Every one [sic] would laugh as this continued for probably a half hour
until I realized I was the entertainment and sale was going to happen
Why then would a scholarly audience be interested in reading Guatemala’s Masks and Drama?
The book is a wealth of raw data. First, he provides a good, basic
introduction to Guatemalan mask making and the performances in which
masks are used. Pieper explains mask-making techniques, provides
overviews of three different mask workshops, and short descriptions of
roughly 32 different dances, including those commonly described by
folklorists and anthropologists, like “Dance of the Conquest.” Of these
dances, he includes eight scripts (the instructions for performers and
their dialogue) that he copied from the performers themselves, as he
collected masks over the years. Aside from providing little
socio-cultural context and no analysis, the only documentation lacking
is the choreography of the dances.
second reason for scholars of handicrafts, in general, but masks in
particular, to read this book is that not only does Pieper write freely
from academic restrictions, he is also free from the typical museum
catalogue genre. Not faced with having to describe a limited number of
masks, he visually presents a wide range and variety of masks. This
illustrates how variable and changeable Guatemalan masks are over time,
across regions, and among different ethno-linguistic groups of Mayas.
With photographs as evidence, his book documents Maya creativity and
diversity in a way that exhibition-oriented catalogues tend not to do.
third reason why scholars should consider Pieper’s book is that it
provides an intimate look into the mind of a collector, one who is
secure in his collecting habits vis-à-vis other collectors and who is
curious about Guatemalan customs beyond masks themselves.
Anthropological research on collectors themselves has been sparse and
this book is a wonderful source for understanding how collectors think
about the items they desire.
One cannot help but be overwhelmed by the hundreds of photographs of masks in this book. However, Guatemala’s Masks and Drama
needs to be read in context of the many fine ethnographies of highland
Guatemala and the culturally rich analyses of Maya craft production and
traditional performance. These books frequently lack such photographs
and leave the reader to imagine the cultural items and practices being
described and analyzed.
Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University at Albany (State
University of New York), Walter E. Little is the author of Mayas in the Marketplace: Tourism, Globalization, and Cultural Identity (University of Texas Press, 2004) and (with R. McKenna Brown and Judith M. Maxwell) ¿La ütz awäch?: Introduction to Kaqchikel Maya Language (University
of Texas Press, 2006). Since 1992, his research has focused on the
socio-economic and political lives of Kaqchikel and K’iche/Maya